You can’t help but think of the parallels between this season and the one two years ago.
That’s why Duke has to beat Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend to flip the narrative around.
Unlike the 2015 squad, this Blue Devil team was not already guaranteed a spot in postseason play when Miami marched into Durham. That group started 6-1 and had hopes of playing in the ACC championship before the infamous eight-lateral fiasco that Halloween night. Duke proceeded to drop its next three games and limped into its bowl game.
Although it was not nearly as dramatic, the Hurricanes once again ruined a primetime matchup for the Blue Devils Friday. Miami wasted little time, taking a quick 14-0 lead before cruising to an easy 31-6 victory, but the outcome was the same—a deflating loss for a rising Duke team.
On paper, Saturday’s matchup should not be that much of an issue for the Blue Devils. Virginia is coming off a 2-10 season and has a second-year head coach in Bronco Mendenhall. However, the Cavaliers have already surpassed their win total from last season, and quarterback Kurt Benkert has been on fire to start the season, racking up 10 touchdowns compared to just one interception in four contests. Virginia is also coming off a bye week and will have fresh legs at home.
Then there is Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, its supposed star in the making this season. Coming off dominant victories against N.C. Central and Northwestern, it certainly seemed as though he fit the bill.
But since then, despite facing three teams in the bottom half of the nation in pass defense, the wheels have come off of the Jones bandwagon. The redshirt sophomore has eclipsed 200 yards just once—reaching 202 on 34 pass attempts against North Carolina—and has thrown just one touchdown and two interceptions.
To top it off, Jones is going to have to rebound against the team that forced him into a nightmare performance last season. Behind a homecoming crowd, Jones committed six turnovers—five of them interceptions—in Virginia’s sole conference victory. The three defensive backs that snatched Jones’ errant passes are all returning, as is preseason All-American linebacker Micah Kiser.
Just one week ago, everything seemed to be just fine in Durham. Battling overwhelmed opponents, the Blue Devils dealt with just a small amount of adversity, only facing a second-half deficit agains the Tar Heels. The most efficient defense in the nation feasted on opponent’s ground games, forcing them into unfavorable third-down situations.
But then Miami came in and exposed all of Duke’s problems, and it will be interesting to see how a young team responds to losing. The saying “winning cures all” was able to fly for the beginning of the season, but with just four victories and more than half the season still to be played, a strong start will not be enough to define the Blue Devils’ season.
Duke will be defined by how it performs these next few weeks, starting with Virginia. Although they are favored according to ESPN's FPI in four of their remaining regular season games—including this week—the Blue Devils are not secure. If Jones and the rest of the offense continue to struggle, who knows what will happen? Duke can only win so many games behind its defense and a strong running game.
What will happen when opponents begin to load eight players at the line of scrimmage? Will Jones be able to throw over the top of the defense?
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Duke’s primary target, junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming, has two important catches but little else the past two weeks and was largely a non-factor against the Hurricanes. Starting tight end Daniel Helm has just six receptions this season, and only Rahming and slot receiver Johnathan Lloyd have reached the 20-catch mark.
Someone is going to have to make a play to fire up the Blue Devil passing attack. It is not as if there is no talent—Helm and wideouts Aaron Young and Chris Taylor have been factors in the past—but they just need to find ways to get open, whether it is through Jones or a broken play, to regain some confidence.
After all, the season is riding on the offense, and running backs Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown have done their part on the ground. The rest of the team needs Jones and his receivers to step up—otherwise, another disappointing season and a struggle to get to bowl eligibility may be on the way despite a promising start.